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Anderson Independent-Mail (South Carolina)
Sift through a series of panoramic snapshots of college football stadiums, and one may infer that many schools have added gray to their official colors. The seas of red, blue and white that rolled through stands have been speckled by patches of concrete and aluminum.
Last season, the highest level of college football suffered its second largest drop ever in average attendance. The 129 NCAA Division I bowl subdivision teams drew an average crowd of 42,203 per game, including neutral-site and bowl games. That is a 3.23 percent decrease from the previous season and merely 163 more fans per game than the 1985 season.
For the first time since 1948, when the NCAA began recording crowds, attendance has declined in four consecutive seasons. The trend includes small upstart programs and former powerhouses, from every part of the country.
Except South Carolina.
The three bowl subdivision programs in the Palmetto State - Clemson University, the University of South Carolina and Coastal Carolina University - have enjoyed steady attendance through the past four years.
South Carolina produced a 2.08 percent increase in 2017. Clemson recorded a decrease of less than one quarter of a percent. Clemson, South Carolina and Coastal Carolina were three of the 29 teams whose average crowd occupied at least 95 percent of the stadium capacity.
During its second season in the bowl subdivision, Coastal Carolina ranked 14th with an average capacity of 99.7 percent. However, the Chanticleers have the smallest stadium in the subdivision. Their average crowd of 14,959 skews the national average.
Coastal Carolina expanded the stadium to 15,000 from 9,214 before the 2017 season. A second phase is underway to expand capacity to 20,000 with luxury suites and an upper deck. Coastal Carolina will still be one of 57 bowl subdivision schools with a stadium capacity lower than that 42,303 mark.
Yet, the average crowd at 69 bowl subdivision schools occupied less than 80 percent of stadium capacity in 2017. Seventeen of those teams play in one of the five major conferences - Arizona State, North Carolina, Southern California, Vanderbilt, Arizona, Maryland, Northwestern, Rutgers, Missouri, Syracuse, Duke, Illinois, Virginia, UCLA, California, Pittsburgh and Kansas. Arizona State and North Carolina are in the process of downsizing their stadiums to enhance other amenities.
Unlike many of those schools, Clemson and South Carolina can rely on a vast assortment of gameday traditions that encourage devoted fans to purchase tickets, tailgate, cheer and chant, even during a competitive skid.
Clemson has leveraged the most successful period in school history. In 2015, the season in which it hosted Notre Dame and Florida State and advanced to its first appearance in the College Football Playoff, Clemson attracted an average crowd of 84,308, technically 103.1 percent of Memorial Stadium's capacity.
Nevertheless, Clemson administrators realize the national championship allure will fade. They recognize they are not immune to the conditions that plague every program. They have dedicated thought and resources toward enhancing the stadium experience.
"That's making sure that everything we can control is controlled," Clemson associate athletic director for communications Joe Galbraith said. "Cleanliness of bathrooms. Expediting the concession lines. Cleaning up concourses. Making sure the stadium looks nice, the elevators work, the sound system's good.
"All the things that go into the experience of a fan are important to us. We emphasize each of those throughout all of our sports, but specifically football, to make sure that whatever we can do to make the experience as good as possible we're doing. Because we know we're competing with your couch."
There are no bag checks, concession stands or bathroom lines at a fan's home. They do not need to navigate heavy traffic, pay for parking or sit outdoors. A fan can spend less on four months of a cable subscription than four tickets to a single game. The resolution on an ultra-high-definition 4K television is much more vivid than the view from an upper deck seat.
"Ticket prices are expensive, concessions are expensive, and now you get an incredible experience watching it on your television screen," ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. "If your team is in contention for the Playoff, you feel like you have to go. 'I've got to see them. This could be my only chance to see a national championship team.'...So, they spend their last dollar trying to go to those games.
"If you're not in contention, people would just as soon say, 'Hey, I'll watch them on TV.'"
The Top 10 highest-rated telecasts in the history of cable television are all ESPN college football broadcasts. More than 28.4 million people tuned into the southern-fried CFP national championship game between Southeastern Conference powers Alabama and Georgia. The Birmingham, Atlanta and Greenville markets led with overnight ratings higher than 30. Yet, the Columbus, Austin and New Orleans markets were also in the Top 15.
ESPN will pay $7.3 billion over 12 years for the CFP broadcast rights. It will play $4.8 billion over 20 years for the Atlantic Coast Conference Network and $6 billion over 20 years for the SEC Network.
To protect those investments, ESPN must continue to develop enhancements to the viewing experience. Schools benefit immensely from that television revenue, but they cannot neglect stadium operations. Clemson has even integrated the ESPN broadcast to enrich the in-game presentation.
"We work with our TV partners to utilize their feeds of instant replay on our video boards," Galbraith said, "so that fans at home aren't watching anything different than the fans in the stands."
One of Clemson's closest rivals is on the less favorable side of the attendance trend. Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium opened in Atlanta in 1913. It has not yet been outfitted with the massive screens that light up larger stadiums. Georgia Tech also does not yet have a national championship-caliber team to entice fans.
Georgia Tech compiled a 17-19 record through the last three seasons. Its attendance dropped 7.5 percent from 2015 to 2017. According to Georgia Tech associate athletic director Jeff Keisler, administrators have developed plans to upgrade the stadium. Coach Paul Johnson certainly aims to improve the team. Keisler said, in the meantime, Georgia Tech must capitalize on the assets it already possesses.
"Even programs that have fantastic winning records have seen challenges in being able to compete with the experience that someone can get while they're sitting at home," Keisler said. "We're changing from a very, very transaction-oriented process to more of a relationship management process.
"That experience when you come to the stadium has to be fantastic. It's from start to finish, from the ticket-buying process through leaving the stadium. All of that has to be good. If all those things are working against you, it's like the death of 1,000 cuts."
Tech has streamlined the entry process, augmented points of sale throughout the stadium and investigated smartphone applications that would allow fans to preorder concessions before arriving. Tech adjusted its scheduling strategy to offset the attendance ebb in years when the rivalry game with Georgia is in Athens.
Keisler said Tech also has explored new tactics to engage its alumni and think outside the stadium.
"Really, my goal is generating revenue and generating engagement. What if I can provide an experience at home that equates to the experience in the stadium?" Keisler said. "That's where I think the growth and the future of sports is, that someone sitting in Seattle, Washington can have a gameday experience like they're sitting in Athens or sitting in Atlanta watching Georgia-Georgia Tech play. That's what it's got to be about."
Keisler mentioned exclusive video feeds and private access that schools could develop without relying on television partners. Establishing an additional revenue stream with little overhead costs would also make schools less reliant on ticket sales.
"Think about the soccer teams in Europe. They have millions of fans, but how many of those fans are actually living where those teams are playing," Keisler said. "They have figured out how to engage their fans across the world, and that's what we have to do."
Keisler and Galbraith both asserted that any effective strategy must start with an open dialogue with fans. Clemson administrators established the Solid Orange Fan Advisory committee to gather feedback from students and alumni.
"It's no accident that the acronym is SOFA," Galbraith said, alluding to gameday managers' toughest competitor. "Listening to our fans, listening to what they're saying about traffic, about concessions stands, about seating, about gates - we've sent an email to each one of our ticket purchasers after the game, with a link to an email address soliciting feedback.
"We review those every single week to make sure we are proactively addressing concerns, so that we keep those fans coming back."
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